Wisconsin Thrives Outdoors Again
Tops Rival Minnesota with Big Second Period
CHN Staff Report
CHICAGO Old rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota met Sunday in a setting they had never met in before. But for Wisconsin, the result seemed very familiar.
Wisconsin improved to 3-0 in outdoor games during the modern era, scoring three goals in a 3:19 span of the second period to defeat the Gophers, 3-2.
For Minnesota, it was the program's first experience outside since these spectacles have become more commonplace, just over 10 years ago.
“It was obviously a great experience to be a part of a game like this," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "It’s something I know our players will remember the rest of their lives. But, like I told them, you remember it better if you win. Unfortunately that didn’t happen tonight. I thought we came on and played a very good first period and then ultimately the second period cost us tonight.”
Adding to the intrigue, these games mattered, not just because it's a rivalry and because it was on national television, but because they were league games. Minnesota defeated Wisconsin on Friday, but Sunday's loss prevented the Gophers from leaping back into second place. Instead, they remain two points back of second, with two games in hand, and three points from first place St. Cloud State.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, moved within one point of Minnesota and North Dakota, and two ahead of Denver for the final home ice spot, though with two games more played.
“I think we did a good job in the third period of keeping the puck down in Minnesota’s zone," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. "We kept it simple. Having the lead, it’s a game that you don’t have to press and you can just put it to areas. We protected the puck well and even created a couple of scoring chances."
Some coaches would shy away from having a spectacle like this be a league game on top of it. But Wisconsin, which had to give up a home game to do it, seemed to embrace it.
“One of the things we talked about this past week is that we’re in the dog days of the second half of the WCHA," Eaves said. "To have an event like this becomes an emotional energizer. It’s different. It’s unique. It’s not just another game in the second half of the season.”
Wisconsin won an outdoor game against Michigan at its own Camp Randall Stadium in February 2010 in front of more than 55,000. The Badgers also defeated Ohio State in a game played at storied Lambeau Field in Green Bay in February 2006. This game had over 52,000 at Soldier Field — and outside of the two monster, record-breaking crowds that have seen Michigan-Michigan State play, the three Wisconsin games are the next largest crowds to see a game in college hockey history.
“It was a great feeling, being in Madison and at Camp Randall, but for our team, this year, playing at Soldier Field and playing against Minnesota, a big rival, I think this definitely overtakes it," Wisconsin defenseman John Ramage said. "Today was a big win for us and hopefully it will push us forward to the end.”
In fact, the home "field" advantage did wind up paying off for Wisconsin. The referees decided that the ice conditions were worse at one end than the other, so they made the decision to have each team defend one side for 10 minutes each. As, technically, the home team, Wisconsin got to choose which side it wanted to defend for each of the 10 minutes.
“We had the choice of which end to take first," Eaves said. "We chose what we did because we wanted to have the line changes closer to our bench in the last two minutes.”
It was also a home game, of sorts, for Wisconsin forward Michael Mersch, who grew up in nearby Park Ridge, Ill.
“We have season tickets here (Soldier Field) as a family (for the Bears), and it was a surreal experience to be able to share this with my teammates and get the win tonight,” Mersch said.
Minnesota got an early third period goal from Seth Ambroz, then another in the last two minutes from Zach Budish, but was unable to complete the comeback. The final shots were 38-19 in favor of the Gophers, including 11-3 in the final period.
But the Gophers tried to appreciate the experience, despite the loss.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to lose, but we talked about it last night as a team that this is a big stage and big event and you get treated well," Budish said. "It’s a Sunday game so not a lot of college games were today, so I’m sure people were tuning in across the country. It is what it’s like when you get down to the NCAA tournament and I think it’s a good learning experience for us. We have to learn to play a full 60-minute game and I think we got away from our game a little bit there in the second.
"It was a good crowd and a lot of our fans from Minnesota made the trip, so obviously it’s frustrating for us to not get them the win when they traveled six, seven hours. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, big stage and we just fell short.”